Chapter 14 - Petropavlovsk And Schlüsselburg

Submitted by libcom on October 20, 2005

Petropavlovsk And Schlüsselburg

AS SOME time was to pass before we could depart, I took advantage of the opportunity which presented itself to visit the historic prisons, the Peter-and-Paul Fortress and Schlüsselburg. I recollected the dread and awe the very names of these places filled me with when I first came to Petrograd as a child of thirteen. In fact, my dread of the Petropavlovsk Fortress dated back to a much earlier time. I think I must have been six years old when a great shock had come to our family: we learned that my mother's oldest brother, Yegor, a student at the University of Petersburg, had been arrested and was held in the Fortress. My mother at once set out for the capital. We children remained at home in fear and trepidation lest Mother should not find our uncle among the living. We spent anxious weeks and months till finally Mother returned. Great was our rejoicing to hear that she had rescued her brother from the living dead. But the memory of the shock remained with me for a long time.

Seven years later, my family then living in Petersburg, I happened to be sent on an errand which took me past the Peter-and-Paul Fortress. The shock I had received many years beore revived within me with paralyzing force. There stood the heavy mass of stone, dark and sinister. I was terrified. The great prison was still to me ahuanted house, causing my heart to palpitate with fear whenever I had to pass it. Years later, when I had begun to draw sustenance from the lives and heroism of the great Russian revolutionists, the Peter-and-Paul Fortress became still more hateful. And now I was about to enter its mysterious walls and see with my own eyes the place which had been the living grave of so many of the best sons and daughters of Russia.

The guide assigned to take us through the different ravelins had been in the prison for ten years. He knew every stone in the place. But the silence told me more than all the information of the guide. The martyrs who had beaten their wings against the cold stone, striving upward toward the light and air, came to life for me. The Dekabristi Tchernishevsky, Dostoyevsky, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and scores of others spoke in a thousand-throated voice of their social idealism and their personal suffering--of their high hopes and fervent faith in the ultimate liberation of Russia. Now the fluttering spirits of the heroic dead may rest in peace: their dream has come true. But what is this strange writing on the wall? "To-night I am to be shot because I had once acquired an education." I had almost lost consciousness of the reality. The inscription roused me to it. "What is this?" I asked the guard. "Those are the last words of an intelligent," he replied. "After the October Revolution the intelligentsia filled this prison. From here they were taken out and shot, or were loaded on barges never to return. Those were dreadful days and still more dreadful nights." So the dream of those who had given their lives for the liberation of Russia had not come true, after all. Is there any change in the world ? Or is it all an eternal recurrence of man's inhumanity to man?

We reached the strip of enclosure where the prisoners used to be permitted a half-hour's recreation. One by one they had to walk up and down the narrow lane in dead silence, with the sentries on the wall ready to shoot for the slightest infraction of the rules. And while the caged and fettered ones treaded the treeless walk, the all-powerful Romanovs looked out of the Winter Palace toward the golden spire topping the Fortress to reassure themselves that their hated enemies would never again threaten their safety. But not even Petropavlovsk could save the Tsars from the slaying hand of Time and Revolution. Indeed, there is change; slow and painful, but come it does.

In the enclosure we met Angelica Balabanova and the Italians. We walked about the huge prison, each absorbed in his own thoughts set in motion by what he saw. Would Angelica notice the writing on the wall, I wondered. "To-night I am to be shot because I had once acquired an education."

Some time later several of our group made a trip to Schlüsselburg, the even more dreadful tomb of the political enemies of Tsarism. It is a journey of several hours by boat up the beautiful River Neva. The day was chilly and gray, as was our mood; just the right state of mind to visit Schlüsselburg. The fortress was strongly guarded, but our Museum permit secured for us immediate admission. Schlüsselburg is a compact mass of stone perched upon a high rock in the open sea. For many decades only the victims of court intrigues and royal disfavour were immured within its impenetrable walls, but later it became the Golgotha of the political enemies of the Tsarist rÈgime.

I had heard of Schlüsselburg when my parents first came to Petersburg; but unlike my feeling toward the Peter-and-Paul Fortress, I had no personal reaction to the place. It was Russian revolutionary literature which brought the meaning of Schlüsselburg home to me. Especially the story of Volkenstein, one of the two women who had spent long years in the dreaded place, left an indelible impression on my mind. Yet nothing I had read made the place quite so real and terrifying as when I climbed up the stone steps and stood before the forbidding gates. As far as any effect upon the physical condition of the Peter-and-Paul Fortress was concerned, the Revolution might never have taken place. The prison remained intact, ready for immediate use by the new rÈgime. Not so Schlüsselburg. The wrath of the proletariat struck that house of the dead almost to the ground.

How cruel and perverse the human mind which could create a Schlüsselburg! Verily, no savage could be guilty of the fiendish spirit that conceived this appalling tomb. Cells built like a bag, without doors or windows and with only a small opening through which the victims were lowered into their living grave. Other cells were stone cages to drive the mind to madness and lacerate the heart of the unfortunates. Yet men and women endured twenty years in this terrible place. What fortitude, what power of endurance, what sublime faith one must have had to hold out, to emerge from it alive! Here Netchaev, Lopatin, Morosov, VoIkenstein, Figner, and others of the splendid band spent their tortured lives. Here is the common grave of Ulianov, Mishkin, Kalayev, Balmashev, and many more. The black tablet inscribed with their names speaks louder than the voices silenced for ever. Not even the roaring waves dashing against the rock of Schlüsselburg can drown that accusing voice.

Petropavlovsk and Schlüsselburg stand as the living proof of how futile is the hope of the mighty to escape the Frankensteins of their own making.